White House Fellow – August 2019 thru August 2020
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson created a program to run annually and consist of 15 young men and women from diverse backgrounds to be picked from thousands of non-partisan applications and charged with President Johnson’s declaration that “a genuinely free society cannot be a spectator in society.”
It was with that charge in mind in 2019 Dakota Roberson, Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Wyoming; literally threw his hat (And yes, it would have been one of his many cowboy hats…) into the ring. And following a whirlwind of interviews Dakota was picked as one of the 15 White House Fellows.
“I’ve never had any kind of political agenda in my life, but yes, after this past year and the honor of being there and seeing things first hand you can’t help but become a bit politicized and having it shape the way you look at politics,” said Roberson during a recent interview upon he and his wife Jenni’s return to Idaho Falls.
Each Fellow is assigned to one of the various Cabinet level offices in the administration with Dakota’s being the Pentagon. He explained the Fellows are always a good mix of America’s population “and all walks of life;” his group having nine civilians and six military.
So the cowboy born and raised in Rock Springs, Wyoming, packed his Ariat and Luchesse boots and with his wife Jenni the ICU nurse who was born in Green River, Wyoming left for Washington, DC, in August 2019 set to return August 2020; but both were about to have front row seats in witnessing more history than one might have imagined.
And while Dakota walked the walk of White House Fellows to see the guts and glory of Washington at work, what with being part of greeting foreign dignitaries on the South Lawn and attending symposiums; his wife Jenni went to work as a traveling neonatal nurse in Maryland and Virginia. “She was an angel both in her support of me and her work at the hospitals,” he said.
Other tasks White House Fellows found themselves in was attending Congressional hearings and watching debate on the House and Senate floors. It was in these things Dakota and the other Fellows began to witness things that with him at least, instilled a desire to give back in public service and even run for office someday.
“What we were watching was Congress failing to function”, he said. Yet, instead of it discouraging these 15 Washington outsiders, it had the reverse effect. “It was actually motivating,” Dakota said. “We all began to feel like there were ways things could run better than this… what we were seeing in real time”.
It was feelings such as they were experiencing that were exactly what President Johnson had hoped. In commissioning the first group he said he hoped the Fellows would “repay the privilege” on leaving Washington and “continuing to work as private citizens on their public agendas.”
Something Dakota recently did by accepting an invitation to become the Idaho Coordinator for the nationwide group Take Back Our Republic, Takeback.org .
The other shoe fell for Dakota and the other Fellows with seven months left in the tour of duty. “We were supposed to go to Japan on a trade and defense mission,” he said. “And that’s when we saw things just shut down; tight as a drum.”
In the year there Dakota Roberson spent 60-percent of his time at the Pentagon. A place he said had so many of the answers and the way to handle things with the pandemic. “They should have listened to what the Pentagon wanted to do. It was used to doing battle and they were prepared to take something like Covid on,” he said.
Dakota said each of the 15 stepped forward with their specialties and they began teaching each other in ways to come up with how things might be handled better.
“We were along with everyone else trying to make sense of what was going on,” Dakota said. “They would approach us and ask us to take a look at something from the angle of being from an outside view,” he said. For him it was developing and teaching a stats class by using the numbers from the pandemic coming in.
The lawyer in the group taught a class on states rights or federal rights, which was perfect for the debates going on in the pandemic, he said. “And at times they would bring something to us and present it,” Dakota said. “They’d ask our opinion but then indicate they were going forward with it anyway. That’s when we’d say, ‘Hey, are you sure of that, because it’s not really how we do it externally – out there.”
August 2020 rolled into town and the White House Fellowship and the last seven excruciating months had come and gone. Dakota and Jenni Roberson had just lived through history very up close and personal. And yet, on the way out of town Dakota had hoped to make one last stop – it too, having to do with the past and history.
“I’d just finished “Scandalous Son,” the bio of John Payne Todd. Dolley Todd Madison’s Lost son. She tried so hard to find him.” And the one place he wanted to stop was a small museum dedicated to Dolley Madison; but as Dakota and Jenni pulled up a sweet old woman was closing up.
Maybe it was the quick talk of a good Wyoming boy, or the shine coming from the cowboy boots he had on, but the “sweet old lady let us in.”
And the White House Fellowship of 2020 had come to an end. And because of it, Dakota Roberson will tell you, “No. I’ve not ruled out running for office.”
Presently Dr. Roberson is an instructor at the University of Idaho’s Idaho Falls graduate student campus.